Union

Union-Toronto FC 5 things: Stopping Jozy Altidore

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Union-Toronto FC 5 things: Stopping Jozy Altidore

Union (11-11-8) vs. Toronto FC (13-8-8)
5 p.m. on TCN 

Dropping the first of their three-game road gauntlet to the Portland Timbers last weekend, the Union are desperate for points. But their path to the playoffs won’t get any easier Saturday when they take on scorching Jozy Altidore and East-leading Toronto FC at BMO Field.

Here are five things to know.

1. Slumping C.J. 
With one goal in his last nine games, C.J. Sapong is officially slumping.

“You’d love for him to get a goal,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “He’s little bit unlucky in that instance.”

Unlucky indeed. Sapong, who rattled off five of his nine goals in a six-game span in late March, early June, has been struggling to get involved offensively. But it’s something Curtin chalked up to a game of inches, noting a lucky goal would alter the conversation.

“The margins in our league are very small,” said Curtin, who insisted Sapong’s slump is more misfortune than anything else. “He’s still a forward that I very much believe in.”

Although Curtin insists Sapong is generating enough, the physical forward only has two shots on goal in his last six games, with his last goal coming Aug. 13 against the New England Revolution. He had two shots on goal in the six games following that tally. 

“He’s guy that brings a lot of intangibles to each game and he’s a big part of our success,” Curtin said. “We know that he will get going and get goals. He’s going to contribute and make everybody else’s job easier around him.

“I’m still very much a believer in C.J. and what he’s all about.”

2. Tribbett’s redemption
The last time Union center back Ken Tribbett faced Toronto FC, he was subbed out at half for Josh Yaro, after being run over by Sebastian Giovinco and Altidore in the 3-1 loss on Aug. 20. 

He’s played just one game since. 

“I think Ken learned from that game,” Curtin said.

Saturday will be a chance for Tribbett to put that education to use. Along with the entire Union back line, which wasn’t good on the day, it’s a chance for redemption for Tribbett with Yaro serving a red-card suspension.

“Ken is a guy who is confident,” Curtin said. “He plays the same way. We’re going to encourage him to still pass out of the back and in moments when he needs to be direct, be direct. He’s great in the air, he’ll win his battles. We know we’ll get a good performance from Ken.”

3. Altidore Powering Toronto FC
With Giovinco ruled doubtful for Saturday’s match as a result of an injury, the Union have their eye on Altidore. The Toronto FC and U.S. Men’s National Team forward has seven goals in his last seven games, including a brace last weekend against the New York Red Bulls.

“He’s on fire right now,” Curtin said. “Everything he’s touching is going in. He’s strong, he’s confident, he’s a top American forward. He’s our top guy, and when he’s scoring goals he’s tough to stop.” 

But if Altidore is such a dominant force, how can the Union stop him?

“You don’t want to get into a shoving match with Jozy because he’ll manhandle you,” Curtin said. “You want to bump him early and give him a little bit of space. He’s not a guy that loves to get on the ball, turn, dribble and beat guys. That’s not his game. He’s a guy that does his damage in the box. Confident strikers are difficult to deal with and he’s at the top of the list right now.”

4. Keep an eye on
Union: Chris Pontius is not exactly on fire, but he did break a five-game scoring drought last Saturday. The Union will look to him to keep it going, as he pushes to tie a career-high of 12 goals set in 2012.

Toronto FC: Altidore’s so productive right now, he deserves to be mentioned twice. His scoring run started on July 31 and hasn’t let up. Since then, he has eight goals in nine games and a whopping 21 shots over that span. To stop Toronto FC on Saturday means the Union need to stop Altidore.

5. This and that
• Maurice Edu, who is recovering from a broken leg, continued his move toward the Union lineup. After playing his third conditioning match with Bethlehem Steel, the defensive midfielder will travel to Toronto with the club. “It’s trending toward him starting to play a role in our 18 as opposed to starting for Bethlehem,” Curtin said.

• Since their last match, the Union signed midfielder Kevin Kratz. He’s a utility player, able to give Curtin depth all over his midfield. He won’t be available for Saturday. “Hopefully all the paperwork gets taken care of and then we’ll be sorted out,” Curtin said.

• Fabian Herbers is set to make his fifth consecutive start Saturday. He has been working the right side of the attacking midfield in place of injured Ilsinho, who Curtin wants back in the lineup in a full-time capacity as soon as possible. “Right now, he’s not quite at the 90-minute stage to start him,” Curtin said of Ilsinho. “Is he getting closer? Possibly. But it’s something that he’s working towards.”

• The Union are 6-6-4 against Toronto FC all time

• The Union are two goals shy of setting a franchise record for goals scored. They currently have 49 but had 51 in 2014.

Alejandro Bedoya, CJ Sapong, Warren Creavalle called upon for international duty

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Alejandro Bedoya, CJ Sapong, Warren Creavalle called upon for international duty

A trio of Union players are being called upon for international duty.

Midfielder Alejandro Bedoya and forward CJ Sapong have been named to the final U.S. Men's National Team roster for an upcoming international friendly against Portugal on Nov. 14 in Leiria, Portugal. 

Bedoya has earned 65 international caps for the USMNT including four World Cup appearances. Conversely, Sapong has earned just two caps, both in friendlies. However, Sapong recorded 16 goals this season, setting a career-high and a new franchise record. His 16 goals were tops among American players in MLS, one more that USMNT mainstay Jozy Altidore.

Union midfielder Warren Creavalle has also been called up by Guyana in their friendly against Trinidad and Tobago. Creavalle has earned three international caps. He played in 13 matches for his club team, his second most in a season since joining the Union in 2015.

Too many familiar chords for Union's Stewart in end-of-season address

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Too many familiar chords for Union's Stewart in end-of-season address

CHESTER, Pa. — Earnie Stewart has a lot of qualities you’d want in a sports executive.

He’s patient. He’s even-keeled. He’s endlessly positive. He always has a plan in mind, and he’s always thinking about the future.

If the Union sporting director has a fault, it may be that he doesn’t seem to have a great read on Philly sports fans, many of whom might have, let’s call it, different personality traits than him. But if Union supporters are feeling negative and impatient these days, it’s certainly for good reason.

The franchise has been floundering near the bottom of MLS since its inaugural season in 2010, while watching teams that entered the league around the same time (Toronto, Seattle, Portland) soar past it and more recent expansion clubs (New York City FC, Atlanta, Orlando) open their wallets for MVP-caliber players while drawing big crowds.

Stewart, meanwhile, has admitted the focus in Philly has been on building a foundation and committing to the franchise’s infrastructure through a new practice facility, a minor-league affiliate and an ever-improving youth academy. 

But even if the Union executes flawlessly in all of those aspects, it doesn’t necessarily give the team a competitive advantage over other MLS clubs, most of whom have the same things in place. Similarly, the rebuilding process won’t bear fruit in the way it does for teams in other leagues like the Sixers and Astros since the MLS draft isn’t a reliable mechanism to acquire foundational pieces.

Soon, the club’s youth academy, fueled by a partnership with Bethlehem Steel FC (where the top players can bypass college and get professional minutes) could very well lead to exciting things. But for a team that stresses development, developing young players has never been a particular strong suit — the regression of Keegan Rosenberry (along with the injuries to fellow 2016 standout rookies Josh Yaro and Fabian Herbers) serving as the latest, most glaring example.

Besides, focusing on development and infrastructure shouldn’t take away from building a team that can make the playoffs, which the Union failed to do in 2017 for the sixth time in the franchise’s eight-year history. Philly fans want a winner today, and seeing an expansion team like Atlanta roll into the playoffs behind star South American imports and record crowds has only made their frustration more pronounced.

Which brings us to Stewart’s end-of-season press conference Wednesday.

In his address with reporters, Stewart dove into many of the roster changes the team has made as it declined the options of several players. Still, it didn’t feel like very much will change at all.

For starters, he announced that Jim Curtin will be retained as head coach despite his 38-50-31 overall record. Second, he said that the team’s search for a new attacking midfielder would start in its “own backyard” and didn’t rule out bringing back Ilsinho, possibly in a reserve role, rather than wipe the slate clean after the 2016 season showed it’s the biggest position of need. And third, he hedged when asked if ownership would spend more money to keep up with other teams.

“We have those conversations and I have to say that our ownership group with [majority owner Jay Sugarman] leading that has been good,” Stewart said. “But we’ve also chosen a path that we have as a club, that we started at least since I’ve been here two years ago. That’s our pathway. That’s who we are, that’s who we want to be, and the most important part is we’ve got to come to grips with that.

“Can you spend like the Torontos? No, we can’t. It’s as simple as that. So we have to do it in a different way, and I think we’ve found that way. When you look around at what we have at the club and the facilities we have, we’re still building because a lot of times it’s only seen in player spending. But this is such a young club that there’s so much that needs to be built. You can bring in the best player you want but if you don’t have the infrastructure, it’s not going to work.”

The thing about this is no one is even asking them to spend like Toronto FC, who dishes out over $18 million a year to three star players: Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore. Clearly, it’s a strategy that works, as Toronto posted the best record in league history this season after advancing to the MLS Cup final a year ago. But at this point, Union fans would settle for bringing in just one difference-maker in the $2 million range (plus a transfer fee) — the kind of salary that lured star playmakers Miguel Almiron (Atlanta), Diego Valeri (Portland), Romain Allesandrini (LA Galaxy) and Nicolas Lodeiro (Seattle) to MLS. 

Imagine one of those players behind striker CJ Sapong and in front of central midfielders Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin. The Union could easily make the playoffs. Throw in a veteran defender and a quality winger and you could make the case they’re a title contender.

That’s the thing about MLS. There’s a lot talk about building a foundation and grooming young players but, in the end, your success boils down to how much you spend and whether or not you acquire the right players. 

Teams can literally scout anywhere in the world and the Union have had success mixing young Americans in with talented midfielders from France, Argentina and Bosnia, where Medunjanin — an excellent acquisition — hails. But Stewart has also had a lot of misses with his signings as Roland Alberg, Jay Simpson, Giliano Wijnaldum and others failed to make the kind of impact the club needed.

Stewart didn’t really accept much blame for any of those guys, saying Alberg actually had a “very good role” with the Union and that fellow Dutchman Wijnaldum was a “very talented kid” who simply struggled to adapt to a new country. He also didn’t appear to think the 2017 season was a particularly poor one, pointing to the fact that Union finished with same point total, with a better goal differential, as in 2016. Nor did he express any alarm over young players' development, noting that “every player developed this season, except the output wasn’t always the same on Saturday or Sunday.”

On it’s face, there’s nothing wrong with being this positive and Stewart very may well may have big things in store this offseason. But after hearing so much about progress for eight years without ever seeing very much of it, it’s easy to understand why Union fans might not share in his optimism.